WASHINGTON — TWO months ago the United States was so disturbed about North Korea's nuclear ambitions that it threatened sanctions against the hermit nation.
Today relations between Washington and Pyongyang have taken a turn for the better, thanks to an agreement reached after a week of intense negotiations that could lure North Korea from becoming a pariah with nuclear weapons and into the community of nations.
``The North Koreans appear to be dealing and that's very significant,'' says Leonard Spector, a nuclear nonproliferation specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. ``The momentum seems to be toward a settlement.''
The agreement was announced Friday in Geneva, where US and North Korean negotiators have been engaged in talks to resolve a crisis over North Korea's refusal to permit inspections at its nuclear complex in Yongbyon, 60 miles from the North Korean capital. North Korea says the complex is devoted to the generation of electricity. Washington believes North Korea is diverting plutonium from reactor fuel at the site to build nuclear weapons.
Under the terms of the accord, North Korea will extend a freeze on its nuclear program by shutting down an old five megawatt graphite nuclear reactor and eventually halting construction on two new reactors that would be capable of producing enough plutonium to create several nuclear bombs a year.
In return, the US has agreed to help mobilize the technology and capital to build several light-water reactors in North Korea and to provide an alternative energy source - presumably coal-fired plants - until they are on line. The US has also agreed to an exchange of liaison offices with North Korea and to reduce barriers to trade and investment as first steps toward a full normalization of relations.
One issue that was not resolved in Geneva was the final disposition of 8,000 spent fuel rods that were removed from an experimental reactor at Yongbyon last May and placed in a cooling pond. North Korea has agreed, for now, not to reprocess the rods, which contain enough plutonium to build four or five bombs, but still resists US demands that they be removed to a third country.
Although North Korea has agreed to put its nuclear future on hold, it has refused to disclose details of its nuclear past, and that is the issue could be the deal-breaker. US officials say they will not transfer any nuclear technology unless North Korea admits inspectors to two nuclear waste sites where, they suspect, enough plutonium for at least two bombs has been stored. The chief US negotiator in Geneva, Robert Gallucci, said North Korea has agreed in principle to allow such inspections, but North Korean officials suggested otherwise.
If such crucial issues can be resolved, the deal agreed to on Friday could prove advantageous to both sides. For North Korea, it could mark the beginning of the end of decades of self-imposed isolation.
For the US, it advances the goal of preserving the frayed integrity of the global Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which was estabished in 1968 and which is up for review next year. Progress in the nuclear talks could also speed a reconciliation between North and South Korea.
The Geneva talks, which opened on Aug. 5 and adjourned last Friday, will resume on Sept. 23. In the interim, meetings of experts will take place either in the US or in North Korea.
Cold war warming
Friday's agreement culminates a significant shift in relations between the two cold war adversaries, which were strained to the limit over the issue of inspections. Tensions were relieved when former President Jimmy Carter, on a visit to Pyongyang in June, exacted a promise from ``great leader'' Kim Il Sung to place a temporary freeze on North Korea's nuclear program. Kim passed away three weeks later but his successors have sustained his more flexible approach to the nuclear issue.
US officials say that by agreeing to trade a nuclear freeze and inspections for proliferation-resistant light-water technology the US is helping to head off a possible nuclear arms race in the western Pacific. Critics worry that there may be long-term dangers associated with teaching North Korea how to construct and operate a complex nuclear facility.